Few players in any sport can command the kind of attention that Lionel Messi can, and the star Argentina forward again showed his worth on Friday night in Chicago. After entering the match as a 61st minute substitute, Messi went on to score a hat-trick in under 30 minutes, putting on a dazzling display in his country’s 5-0 romp over Panama.
Argentina manager Gerardo Martino elected not to start Messi against the Panamanians, after he did not play in Argentina’s opening win versus Chile earlier in the week. This was perhaps a good policy by Martino, as Panama began the match with edge and intensity in their tackles.
Coming off a physical victory against Bolivia, Panama quickly went into the referee’s pocketbook when striker Blas Perez was booked after six minutes for rough play, meaning the Vancouver Whitecaps man will miss his side’s final group-stage match against Chile.
The free kick that Perez conceded led to Argentina’s first goal after seven minutes, when Manchester City defender Nicolás Otamendi headed in an Ángel Di María cross to put La Albiceleste in front.
The testiness of the match increased as the first half progressed, with Argentina earning two yellow cards and Panama receiving three more bookings prior to halftime. One particular incident saw Panama’s Felipe Baloy given a yellow for a soft headbutt on Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, who was then booked himself for a theatrical dive to the floor.
A key shift the match arrived on 31 minutes when Panama’s rough play came back to haunt them, as San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Aníbal Godoy was sent off for a second yellow card. Having been booked nine minutes earlier for a cynical foul, Godoy’s forearm made contact with the face of an Argentinian player and he was then deservedly sent off.
A few good stops from Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo kept the score at 1-0 heading into halftime, while Argentina were more concerned with an injury suffered by Di Maria, forcing his substitution just before the break.
But it was the substitution of Messi just after the hour-mark that stole the headlines at Soldier Field, as the majority of the 53,885 people in attendance rose to their feet when the star forward entered the match.
The 68th minute goal from Messi, his first of the tournament, was born from a Panamanian defensive error, as a clearance struck the body of Gonzalo Higuaín before bouncing into the path of Messi. Presented with a golden opportunity, Messi made no mistake with his finish, striking past Penedo from inside the box to increase the Argentina lead to 2-0.
Messi’s second goal came 10 minutes later and was a real treat for all in attendance. Faced with a free kick to the right of Penedo’s goal from 25 yards out, Messi produced a stunningly high quality shot, lifting the ball over the wall and putting severe amounts of spin on it with his prized left foot. Nestling into the top right corner of goal, Penedo had no chance against the effort as Argentina went 3-0 up.
The Messi hat-trick arrived in the 87th minute courtesy of an assist from Marcos Rojo, who fed Messi the ball at the top of the box. A few touches and a trademark cutback later, Messi was able to fire the ball past Penedo for his third goal of the night. Messi’s hat-trick was the second of the Copa America Centenario so far, after Philippe Coutinho also scored three for Brazil against Haiti.
Argentina completed their comprehensive win with a late Sergio Aguero header in second half stoppage time to rub salt in the wounds of Panama, who now face a massive uphill battle to try and advance from Group D.
The result eliminates Bolivia from advancing to the knockout stages, as La Verde are the only side in the group without a win. Argentina will now face the Bolivians on Tuesday night in Seattle with a win or draw needed to win the group, while Chile and Panama will play on the same night for the right to advance alongside La Albiceleste.